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The media portray psychopaths as cultured cannibals, or maniacal murderers, dangerous dictators, or sometimes comical characters like the Soup Nazi of Jerry Seinfeld fame. But flamboyant portrayls of psychopaths usually aren't realistic.

Psychopath's personality disorders are sufficiently common that most of us have met someone who would be diagnosed as a psychopath, but not everyone who seems to have this disorder actually does. Real psychopaths can be recognized by these six traits.

  1. Psychopaths display a constellation of traits, not just a few prominent, easily recognizable traits. A doctor who does open heart surgery, for example, needs a certain lack of empathy to do his or her job. A gruff, all-business, unsympathetic bedside manner does not mean your surgeon is a psychopath.
  2. Psychopaths are not psychotic. They are not encumbered by hearing voices or by holding delusional views of the world (although they may be especially well equipped to exploit others who suffer psychosis). Psychopaths typically know the difference between right and wrong. They just don't care.
  3. Prisons aren't full of psychopaths. Only about 25% of people in long-term incarceration are identified as having psychopathic disorders. The overwhelming majority of people in prisons are diagnosed with antisocial personality disorders. The difference between the two conditions is that psychopaths are "born that way" and sociopaths, or people with antisocial personality disorders, are "made that way." Both groups are characterized by narcissism, lying, superficial charm, lack of remorse, destructiveness in relationships, and easy boredom, but psychopaths are less "plugged in" to their surroundings, more capable of independent action. Brain scans also show differences in the ways the brains of psychopaths and sociopaths are wired.
  4. Not all psychopaths are violent at all times. Psychopaths don't usually kill for fun. They kiill to satisfy other needs. In a time of scarcity, however, most psychopaths would have no compunction about killing others for basic needs.
  5. Your boss probably isn't a psychopath. About 4% of business executives and Wall Street traders, one study concluded, exhibit psychopathic personality traits. This means there is a 96% or greater chance that your supervisor isn't among them, but having such a large number of psychopaths in positions of authority has a disproportionate impact on everybody else.
  6. Experts don't necessarily agree on the definition of a psychopathic personality. The people pursued by FBI profilers are usually clearly psychopathic, that is, they are cunning, ruthless, mean, callous, and remorseless, but exactly how many of these qualities are necessary to define the condition in someone else is open to debate. There are even some members of the American Psychiatric Association who consider psychopathy a personality "type" rather than a personality disorder.

The best way to relate to psychopaths is as little as possible. You can't change them, but they can change you for the worse. If you believe there is a real psychopath in your life, the only thing you can do is to escape, but remember, not everyone who is cold or unpleasant is dangerous. Your best defense is to be as independent as possible.

  • Marcus DK, Zeigler-Hill V, Mercer SH, Norris AL. The Psychology of Spite and the Measurement of Spitefulness Psychol Assess. 2014 Feb 17.
  • Tyrer P. Personality dysfunction is the cause of recurrent non-cognitive mental disorder: A testable hypothesis. Personal Ment Health. 2014 Mar 6. doi: 10.1002/pmh.1255.
  • Mindmap by steadyhealth.com
  • Photo courtesy of Mr Seb by Flickr : www.flickr.com/photos/mrseb/5360541820